What’s All This About the Common Core?

The Common Core standards should never have been this big a deal. They should not be the focus of education news stories every day, with states running back and forth on implementation and with testing protests abounding. What in the world caused this?

What's All This About the Common Core? by Regina Paul for Policy Studies in Education

I first had occasion to study the Common Core standards when I introduced them to the faculty of a public high school in New York City in 2010. The standards didn’t seem to me to be too exciting. After all, I had been working with school districts to develop their own learning standards since about 1980—before some states even had state standards and before the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics published its original then-revolutionary standards.

I thought it made sense that these new Common Core standards were developed under the auspices of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association—because I knew that education is a state function in the U.S. If the federal government is going to get into the curriculum conversation, what better way to do it than to endorse a product put out by state leaders.

As I read the Common Core standards in English language arts and math, I thought that they seemed fine—intelligent, comprehensive enough, mostly well written—though not particularly innovative. Yes, they called for analytical and creative thinking and problem solving and all of the other high-level things we hope our students will learn to do well. But so did most of the state standards I had been reading for years. I am sure that educators who lived in states with first-rate standards—New York, Texas, Connecticut, and others too numerous to mention—must have thought, “Well, just one more set of standards to pay attention to. Maybe I can get a few ideas from them to add to what I already do.”

I particularly liked the new standards for literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects, because I agreed that students needed to read, write, speak, and listen effectively across all disciplines—in high school and in college and later in their careers. The faculty members at the high school I was working with took these literacy standards seriously, too. Good for them, I thought. But, truth be told, we had been talking about having students read and write effectively in all of the academic fields for decades.

So what was the big deal? Nothing about these standards seemed wildly new or surprising or too restrictive for teachers, who had to implement them in the classroom. Peter Greene, in a recent Commentary entitled “Which ‘Common Core’ Are We Talking About?” in EdWeek Update, hit the nail on the head:

Many of the instructional “innovations” associated with the common core, from close reading to critical thinking to problem-solving, existed long before the standards were a gleam in David Coleman’s eye. Giving the common core credit for such ideas is like giving the Obama administration credit for having three separate branches of government—and yet that has become an off-hand way of describing what’s important in the standards.


And then I read what international teaching award winner Nancie Atwell said (as quoted in “Don’t Become a Teacher, Advises Award-Winner Nancie Atwell, “ by Jordan Moeny in Education Week Teacher on March 23, 2015):

Public school teachers are so constrained right now by the common core standards and the tests that are developed to monitor what teachers are doing with them…. If you’re a creative, smart young person, I don’t think this is the time to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit you.

To be sure, Ms. Atwell tried to soften her remarks a bit in a later emailed statement, according to the news story, but the damage was done. The fact of the matter is that it’s not the Common Core standards that are so constraining. I would argue that the vast majority of great teachers had already been doing most of what the Common Core standards call for. What might be more constraining is a worry that some teachers have about having their students tested and about being accountable personally for the results.

Just as Ms. Atwell speaks, in the same breath, about the Common Core standards and the matching tests that have been made by testing companies to test them, so do less-well-informed stakeholders. My example comes from a statewide PTA convention that I attended last fall. I was promoting a video training product that my nonprofit had created for PTAs to help them get more actively involved in curriculum issues in their schools. What I heard from countless parents who stopped to chat at my booth was this: “We really need this. We have to get rid of that Common Core.”

No, parents. It’s not the Common Core that you want to get rid of. If you read the standards, you would think they were worthwhile things for your child to learn. What you are trying to get rid of is the tests—tests that you feel instinctively might be used against your child or your child’s teacher or your child’s school in some way that is not clear.

Now I do not know if the new tests are any good, and I am definitely not defending them. I know it is hard to make good tests, and I am sure there will be a lot of discussion about these new ones for some time to come. Nonetheless, I am sorry that the Common Core conversation has gotten so confused and that something that is mostly perfectly fine (albeit unnecessary, in some states) will get a bad reputation because of the confusion. Wouldn’t it have been great if the Common Core standards could have been implemented by teachers without the threat of testing? Someday perhaps we are going to figure out how to do that.